Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chapter 11: The Brian G. Story

Newspaper clipping from 1977
and one of my first track meets.
For those who have followed along know I've posted several excerpts from a project I continue to work on....basically a series of stories surrounding experiences while growing up in a small town. I've only posted a handful of the 100+ chapters and have a long way to go before finishing.  Here are links to the first few:

Chapter 5:  How the Running Taylor Family of WV Began

Chapter 8: The Paden City Fun Run

Chapter 30: The 50 Yard Line Park

Chapter 71: My Introduction to Lori McKee (25 Years Together...Our Silver Anniversary)

Reflecting on Ryan Jobes...and the Band of Brothers he formed

...And here is the latest:
Chapter 11: The Brian G. Story

“One day you could be as good as my Brian.”

In my early years, like most young kids I was learning and finding myself.  The older I got of course I grew out of playing with my toy Tonka trucks in the dirt in front of our house.  I was no longer a child but forming the outline for a young man.  The aggressiveness that you learn as a member of a large family that included five boys who worked hard for everything was becoming a little more obvious.  There were the occasional fist fights and more often my temper would show itself.  I believe all a normal part of growing up in the West Virginia hills along the Ohio River.  The things that meant nothing to me as a child were becoming more and more interesting and more and more important as I started to mature--if that is possible--in junior high school.  Fishing, hunting, motocross riding, ropes swings and mud slides into Middle Island Creek and the Ohio River and the neighbor girls started to become a little more of the focus and began to look a lot different. 

All the surroundings and events of a small town contribute to a person’s growth.  Some of those were good and some not good…most were enjoyable experiences for me and yet some were horrific, as I mentioned in Chapter 10:  Willow Island (April 27, 1978).  The darkest time in our county's history when we lost 51 members of our community including family, neighbors and friends.

This chapter or story is more of a personal look into a driving force throughout my high school running and a glimpse into how small things can and do leave a lasting impression.  Things that may have been well intended but under the circumstances or within the moment were taken out of context or heard in a different manner than intended...

The Program

In the spring of 1979 I was in 8th grade.  I had been following my brothers and cousin’s high school running careers watching them for several years win state track titles and along with Paul Reed, Scott Jemison, Gene Smith and others help St. Marys High School in St. Marys, WV win multiple state track & field team titles. There was no formal junior high program at the time in our county and I badly wanted the opportunity to race.  We had the occasional road race, however the only meet that we middle school track nuts would have the opportunity to compete in was a junior high meet at Parkersburg High School in Parkersburg, WV.

I was tagging along with my brothers running road races and by now my cousins had joined in our family running craze.  My Uncle Art and Aunt Carol Taylor’s family had joined in…Nearly all of their sons and daughters (Jenny, Dave, Brenda, Rob, Jim, Sue, Tammie and Tresa) were regularly running road races…My Uncle Harold and Aunt Wilta Taylor’s four children (Dale, Kevin, Larry and Glenda) were also racers.  Then there was Uncle Frank and Aunt Shirley Taylor’s children (Brian-shot putter who we lost in the 1978 Willow Island disaster, Mark and Greg- hurdlers and Wade)… There were a lot of Taylor’s in the sport of track & field at this point...Actually, there were a lot of Taylor's period at this point.

Middle School Physical Education

Ginseng-We combed the WV hills
for this gold as youngsters.
We really had no formal training program outside of the high school level.  One of our junior high school physical education teachers had us running a little during class but that was all I was doing as far as training.  I had won some AAU races in the preceding years and felt I was doing enough.  We had no formal workout schedule and yet my brothers were always pushing me to go run, but I generally declined.  In 8th grade I was interested in other things like learning the woods and how to make some money to buy another motocross bike.  I found that avenue through ginseng.  Back before there was an actual season, my brothers and I hunted the mountain gold on Saturday’s during the summers.  As a side note, I made $400 myself, digging ginseng, in the summer of 1977 raising enough money to buy a racing bike: a Suzuki RM 80.  Wow, what a motocross bike!

Our middle school did not have a track, just a loop we ran around trees on the south side of the school property.  The trees were not more than four inches in diameter and were planted in the spring/summer of 1975 the year the Pleasants County Middle School was built.  The loop around these trees wasn’t flat but it was flatter than most places.  We were actually not sure how long it was, but we were pretty sure the loop was really close to 440 yards.  Dissecting the loop at about the half way point was a sidewalk.  We always used it as the marker to start our kick on the final lap of running during physical education class...  We would run down the right side of the row of trees and grab the last tree with our left hand swinging around it and return up the ever so slight uphill other side of the trees. We alternated between running during the PE class and a game called speedball.  Speedball was a combination of soccer and football.  It’s a very fast moving game and we loved it.  Given the choice between running and speedball…we always chose speedball.

The Meeting

All I wanted to do at this point was ride my Suzuki RM 80, fish…hunt and play…not train for races.  My brothers were on me a lot about training…or my lack thereof.  A couple of my brothers were nice about it…and a couple tried to motivate me by telling me I was going to get beat if I didn’t train.  The pressure-cooker that I felt I was in mounted and eventually the comments got really old and I started to resist and rebel.  Finally I had enough and got quite mad…not that Taylor’s have a temper (LOL)…and stormed out of the house as the push to run more and to train increased.  

I didn’t know it happened until many years later, but my parents and brothers got together that evening when I was not there and made the decision to drop it.  They would no longer push me or try to force me to run or train.  They concluded that if I loved the sport and had passion for it that I would figure it out.  They concluded that if I was competitive that I would soon learn that distance running takes hard work.  Thankfully they had this meeting and let me “do my thing”.  It was clear I wasn’t training the way I needed to in order to win races and this would soon become one of the best things that could have happened to me at this age.

The Man-Brian G.

As the spring progressed we began to hear about a junior high school track & field meet to be held at Parkersburg High School (PHS).  I entered the Mile, the longest race they offered and couldn’t wait.  The big day finally arrived and my nerves were on edge.  In the weeks leading up to the meet I went to our middle school library and asked Mr. Derwin Yoak, our librarian, if the Parkersburg News & Sentinel Newspaper had arrived.  Back than if it wasn’t in the newspaper then it didn’t happen.  There was no internet for results to be posted.  I was looking for the Wood County junior high track & field meet results.  The neighboring county to us had a complete junior high track & field season.  As I looked at results and the weeks passed I noticed a 9th grader by the name of Brian G.  He was winning all the junior high Mile and 880 races and remained undefeated at that level.  He also competed for the PHS “Big Reds” as a 9th grader and was still eligible for junior high competition.

Parkersburg High School
I was in 8th grade when I walked into the PHS stadium on that Wednesday (April 18th) afternoon in 1979.  The weather was perfect.  Cool and sunny…no wind to speak of.  I’d been there countless times watching my brothers and cousins compete.  It wasn’t home but it practically felt like it.  I had seen a couple photos of Brian G. in the newspaper.  He was a strong looking athlete that appeared to me like he needed a shave, even if he was in 9th grade. As I walked in I searched the stands for him.  I wanted to see my competition and size him up.

The Meet

As the meet progressed it was time to begin my warm-up.  My 4 older brothers (Mike, Cliff, Matt and Vernon) were there, each giving me advice on how to warm-up, when to make a move in the race and what “he” would likely do.  Not that I was overlooking everyone else but based on results I’d seen, my focus was almost entirely on Brian G…

I headed out of the stadium to warm-up and as I headed through the PHS campus I noticed everything.  I kept thinking about how big the PHS school was compared to St. Marys.  I was jealous that they had a pizza place on the edge of their campus.  Heck, St. Marys did not even have a fast food restaurant at that time in our entire town.  If we wanted fast food like Wendy’s or McDonald’s we had to drive 25 miles to Parkersburg or 20 miles to Marietta, Ohio.  

As I rounded the front of their campus there were large grass fields.  The distinct smell of fresh cut April grass lingered in the air; a smell that to this day is an immediate reminder of track season.  This area is also where they threw the discus…but no worries there was plenty of additional room for warm-up.  As I continued my warm-up around these fields the 2nd time I saw ~him~.  There he was warming up in his all red PHS Big Reds sweats.  I remember thinking he was a lot bigger than me. I weighed in at 93 pounds in 8th grade.  

As I sized him up from my wrestling background I figured he was about 5’08” and 140 pounds.  As I got closer to him we looked each other in the eyes as we passed.  He had curly black hair…high cheek bones and looked smooth running.  I said, “Hi” as we passed and he just looked at me and never even acknowledged that I was there outside of looking at me as I approached him.  No acknowledgment in the slightest, he just kept running on by without a word.  “Oh, that’s the way it’s going to be”, I thought.  I was immediately mad because I spoke to him and he did not in return.  In an odd way it was like I showed a weakness and he showed strength in return.  In our family we were brought up to speak when spoken to and to say “hello” to everyone.  It’s funny how his actions would motivate me in the years to come.  As this lack of exchange took place I felt the nerves a little more in the pit of my stomach. As I went into the stadium it hit me, “did he actually have facial hair…a slight beard?”

I didn’t have spikes, just regular running shoes handed down to me by one of my brothers.  They were about 1 1/2 sizes too big.  As I tightened the laces, people around me were talking about Brian G.  I remember a large group of 6-7 girls standing along the fence around the track waiting to see him.  They were giddy about him and I was amazed this guy could have a group of girls there to see him. It actually impressed me on one hand and made me jealous on the other.  Heck, I couldn’t even get one girl interested in me let alone a whole group.  As I walked onto the track I knew this was it…It was show time.

The Race

The starter called us over to give us instructions then we lined up on the cinder track to run the Mile.  Four laps I thought….I wished it was 8 laps instead.  The longer the better; this would be more like a sprint.   The third lap would be a key my brothers told me.  I looked down at the black cinder track and the chalk used to mark the lane lines was powder dry. So dry that it filled your nostrils like the smell of a dirty chalkboard eraser.   When I stepped on the line a puff of white dust covered the end of my shoe.  The starter called us to our mark; I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled as he fired the pistol. The moment of truth was upon us…or at least upon me.

I went out hard and Brian casually settled on my shoulder.  He and I separated from the other runners within the first half a lap.  We came through the 1st lap and he remained on my shoulder.  I continued to push the pace and he just sat on my shoulder.  He didn’t offer to help with the pace as we finished the 2nd lap.  On the third lap I tried harder to get away from him but he remained quietly tucked onto my shoulder and didn’t seem to be hurting.  He was smooth and as I labored for oxygen, he seemed to be effortless. As we came around to start the final lap the starter fired the gun signifying one lap to go…he continued to sit on my shoulder.  Down the back straight we raced. As we came off the final turn he pulled ahead of me by 1 step…then 2 steps…then 3...right there in front of my family and the whole world.  He crossed the line in front of me by 2 1/2 seconds.  Even though we both broke their Wood County junior high record, I was devastated. I had lost!  

His Mom’s Words

As I walked off the track I went to him and congratulated him.  He just smiled as I looked into his eyes and shook my hand with a dead-fish handshake and then he walked off to the group of anxious girls waiting. Oddly, a lot about this night has stuck with me and his weak handshake was one of them. Yet there he was the victor, surrounded by lots of pretty girls!

I went to the stands where my family sat.  No one said much except “good race” and “that was exciting” and “you looked good”. The crap you don’t want to hear when you’ve just LOST. That’s when I turned and saw a middle aged woman walking my direction.  I didn’t know it at that moment but it was Brian G.’s mother.  She came over and introduced herself by saying, “My Brian was the one that beat you.”  Ouch! That stung.  I didn’t care much for that statement, but the truth hurts I thought.  She continued with blah, blah, blah and then as she wrapped up the one sided conversation she said the words that I’ve never forgotten: “Don’t worry honey, one day you could be as good as my Brian”, as she patted me lightly on the left shoulder.  Those words and actions were unbelievable to me.  They really rubbed me the wrong way and stuck with me throughout my running career.  They were like salt into an open wound.  To this day my cousin Rob throws those words at me as a joke when we get together…We chuckle now, but not back then.  My parents, brothers, aunts and uncles all heard her say it.  All I could think to do was smile and say “thank you.”

Don’t Be Like That

I was determined after that experience to try to be gracious in defeat and victory.  I did not want to do or say anything to give my opponents a reason to come after me in their training. Win or lose, I would shake my opponent’s hand after the race…and before the race if they extended it.  From that point until I graduated college I chose to abide by that rule.  If I lost a race I wanted to look the man that beat me directly in the eyes, congratulate him while at the same time telling myself internally to never let it happen again.  The fact that Brian G. did not speak to me before the race motivated me for years…Those words from his mom were like fingernails on a chalkboard and they carried me in a lot of training runs during my high school days. And of course, I had a lot of brothers and cousins that would take every opportunity to share his mom’s words with me every chance they got….which was often. It was pure motivation.  

The Embarrassment

The meet ended and the days following were filled with embarrassment for me.  I had lost.  My brothers didn’t lose very often and by this time I felt winning was expected in our household, yet here I started my career with a loss...a loser.  Yes, even in 8th grade I thought this and was embarrassed by it.  I slept with the vision of him pulling away from me in the last 100 yards and became obsessed with turning the tide and never going into another race under prepared as I had on that night against Brian G. I learned that night that, especially in the sport of distance running, you must prepare.  In that one race he put me in my place and taught me that I could not live off my brothers and cousins name in this sport. When you step to the starting line it's you against them.  Pure...clear and primal.  Looking back, I’m now thankful that he beat me and for exposing to me my own weakness and at the time, shortcomings with my running.   

We faced each other several times after that initial meeting and Brian beat me on another occasion in my career…The experiences that change you as a person and especially as an athlete can often be subtle.  You must pay attention and grab those moments. As I reached my junior year of high school I won the West Virginia AAA State Cross Country meet and Brian was over 75 seconds behind me.  That state cross country win (Chapter 25) at Camp Virgil Tate taught me that your body is capable of tolerating much more pain than your mind typically believes and three weeks later gave me confidence to win the 1981 Kinney (now Foot Locker) Northeast Region race in Van Cortlandt Park in NYC.  I then went on to place 7th at the 1981 Kinney National Championship as a junior and 3rd at the national finals the following year in 1982…but those chapters are many experiences later in my life.

On this particular afternoon I learned many things…things that took me years to fully understand. Three of the most important things I learned that afternoon? First, be humble. Don't be your opponent's reason!  Second, as an athlete you go from being a runner to a racer the moment your mind is stronger than your FIT body.  To reach that level you must train the body and mind; callousing both through the introduction of discomfort in the form of tolerable dosages of pain during training.  This pain must be embraced and welcomed often in order to become indifferent to it and ultimately providing you with a mind and body driven with the sole focus of achieving success at the highest level.  And third, as my brother Cliff reminded me that night, "if you want the girls attention, you gotta win gotta win!"